The photo is from 1978. My son, his truck. Behind him, my truck.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Summer of Love

Summer, 1967

Working my way through college while trying to do some good in the world, in 1967 I spent half a summer in the mind-numbing heat of rural Missouri as a counselor at a summer camp for "underprivileged" children — poverty kids from St. Louis.  My cabin, by my request, contained the oldest kids in the camp: 15- and 16-year-olds.  They tried to assign me one boy who, according to his record, "killed a parole officer."  Fortunately, he never showed up.

"Long haired" Joe Cottonwood

I played my guitar.  They thought I was a genuine folksinger — or a Beatle.  I had the longest hair, by far — it almost came down to my eyes!  My theme song was "I Don't Want Your Millions Mister."  The song they related to the best was "Frankie and Johnny," which was of course about a murder in St. Louis.  These kids knew about killings in St. Louis. 

By accident I discovered one song, "All the Good Times," that put them right to sleep.  It was a quiet song, but mostly I think it was just boring.

On a campout, they caught frogs and fried the legs "like they do in the fancy restaurants in Gaslight Square."  Butchering frogs, I saw they were adept with knives.  One kid caught dozens of lovely powdery moths and pinned them, live, to the bathroom wall.  In the shower I overheard them whispering, laughing, comparing penis size: they said mine  was the smallest. 

They were hoods, but friendly hoods.  One kid, Calvin, had an asthma attack — in secret — and nearly suffocated.  He was afraid to tell me.  I learned later that at home Calvin's stepfather would beat him for having asthma.  Calvin was pigeonbreasted.   

We explored a cave where you had to slide on your belly through cold water to reach a giant room.  We canoed down the Cuivre River, and I went crazy splashing kids with paddles, racing, tipping canoes, doing everything that Charles the canoeing counselor had warned the kids not to do.  Afterwards, Charles chewed me out, saying he'd never let me or my kids take another trip.  Then he spotted a snake, forgot himself, and said, "Look!  A water moccasin!" 


He pointed. 

Suddenly the snake snapped into the air and bit him right on the tip of the finger.

"Charles, you better sit down," I said, and he did, while the kids mauled that snake with canoe paddles.  Looking at the carcass, we could clearly see that it was a common copperhead. 

The driver picking us up was wearing a clown costume because he'd just performed in a play back at camp.  Now he had to rush Charles to the hospital and go into the emergency room dressed and painted like a clown.  Charles, a medical student, refused to take the anti-venom, believing it was more harmful than the copperhead venom itself and also distrusting the level of expertise at the little local hospital.  The hospital staff wasn't happy taking medical advice from a student accompanied by a clown.  Charles was very sick, never returned to camp, and probably to this day he curses my name.  But I go crazy in canoes.  Always have.  And nobody made him point his finger at a copperhead.

On a day off I drove into St. Louis with Bob Eichorn, a counselor who had an old clunker Buick and a bad habit of trying to pass trucks in the suicide lane where US 40 was a three lane highway.  He pulled up to a flower stand, reached out his window, grabbed a pot of flowers and spun out without paying.  "For my girl," he said.  "She's got small breasts.  You like big boobs?"

"I don't care."  I really don't.

"I don't like them so ... voluptuous."  He told me how he'd stolen money from his parents, spent several months with a buddy on the road from Long Beach, California to East St. Louis, Illinois where he was arrested at two A.M. in a laundromat when he'd put all his clothes in a washer and was wearing only a towel.  He'd dropped out of four different colleges, been a Marine for three years, been around the world three times, and had three nervous breakdowns.  Bob was 24 years old.

That was the summer I turned 20.  I'd never been west of the Cuivre River or east of Ocean City, Maryland.

My roommate looked like a young Matt Dillon, 18 years old, handsome, who said that Washington University and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch were both controlled by communists.

"How do you know?" I asked.

"My father told me."

"Do you know what a communist is?"

"A bad guy."

Another counselor named Rodney was my singing partner.  Clean-cut and black, he'd join me in a duet of "Tell Old Bill" that was always a showstopper.  He took me to his house on a day off.  "I'm gonna integrate my neighborhood," Rodney said with a chuckle.  He stopped chuckling when a crowd of angry Black Panthers gathered in his front yard.  "If we can't live in their neighborhoods, he can't stay in ours," they said.  I ended up sleeping on the sofa at the house of a man who was the head of the NAACP in St. Louis and whose daughter, I could see, was sweet on my friend Rodney.  Rodney spent the night there, too.  Maybe he'd planned it all along.

Meanwhile in St. Louis they were having rolling brownouts in a heat wave that seemed hot enough to melt traffic lights.

A young woman working in the kitchen at camp had the largest breasts any of us had ever seen pressing into a blouse.  Breasts were a common subject of male conversation, at least in this corner of Missouri in 1967.  They believed Playboy.  They believed that unsupported flesh really could stick out like that.  One of the counselors took her on a date, and the saying around camp was, "Jack is taking Estelle to eat out.  They're also going to a restaurant."  But afterwards he wouldn't say a word about it, nor would he take her out again.

One counselor started complaining about a sore spot on his penis.  Another said he had a sore lip.  "Aha!" we all concluded.

Every day was like an open air sauna.  Every night, I sang my hoods to sleep.  When they arrived some of the boys were frightened out of their wits by the forest.  At night the whippoorwills sounded like police sirens to their ears.  They breathed fresh air, made friends, learned to swim and canoe, to explore caves, to catch frogs and — for better or worse — to cook them.  Breaded, like chicken.

The last night of camp, the kids would usually pull pranks.  Set off stink bombs.  They wouldn't go to sleep.  That night in the summer of 1967, after singing a couple songs, I started talking about nuclear war.  There wasn't a peep out of my cabin all night.

I wish I knew where those boys — and men — are today. 

From that camp I headed west, ending up in San Francisco.  For me there were two summers in 1967, one along the Cuivre River, one on the west coast.  In popular mythology it was the Summer of Love.  The first half, for sure, it was.

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